Lord Strathcarron, a British author and world traveler, writes travel books of the in-the-footsteps-of genre, touring the world on his sailing boat: a cat-rigged ketch that looks like "two mating windsurfers." He is currently traveling in the footsteps of Mark Twain and working on his new book, The Indian Equator: Mark Twain’s India Grand Tour, Re-toured.
How did you start writing travel books?
“In the footsteps of…” is a sub-genre of travel writing, which throws in a bit of history and adventure.
I first came here (to India) as a hippie in the 60’s. We would sleep on the river on houseboats - and get bitten to death for a half a dollar a week. I ran out of money and fell into journalism: as a reporter for restaurant reviews in What’s On In Hong Kong. Then I went to Japan and got a job through Reuters at the bottom of the pile for Time and Life in Tokyo.
There was a massive demand in print media for stories about China and Japan. I started a company selling “soft” stories about fashion and gossip. I sold that, had a year or two off, and thought I’d start writing books. I really liked traveling and so I thought I’d write travel books.
The first attempt was sort of a disaster. It was about Vasco de Gama’s journey.
Why did you choose Vasco de Gama?
For what Vasco de Gama did - he was a dreadful man, a complete pig of a man, a mass-murderer - he was a pirate, really - but in those days some people were. What he did that was so remarkable was he opened the first sea-borne trade route between India and Europe and cut out all the middle men on the silk route through Africa. Spices at the time, 1497, were incredibly expensive, and European food was completely bland. He went around the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) and went almost as far as Brazil, on the most amazing hunch - that in the southern Hemisphere, wind moved anti-clockwise around high-pressure areas. In those days, most of the crew thought the world was flat - a superstitious, ignorant bunch. The more he went on, the more convinced he was right. He did it three times and ended up viceroy of Portuguese India.
I just admired him enormously as a navigator. Columbus discovered America completely by mistake. Columbus thought he was going the other way.
But when you’re going through the Atlantic you really have to pick your seasons, you’ve just got to go with the trade winds and time it right. We didn’t do the trip ‘round Africa… but I had a contract to do Lord Byron’s 1809-1811 grand tour of the Mediterranean and took it in his footsteps. That became the book, Joy Unconfined! Lord Byron’s Grand Tour Re-Toured.
What compelled you to follow Mark Twain?
Mark Twain went from San Francisco, to New Zealand, Australia, somewhere in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and then he arrived in India: Puna, Baroda, Jaipur, Lucknow, Kanpur, Calcutta, up to Darjeeling, over to Agra and Delhi, and into what is now Pakistan.
When I was in Athens doing the Byron research I came across some writing by Mark Twain. Well, I didn’t even know Mark Twain had been to Athens. It was about Greece in the 19th century. The language was so different - it was pithy and witty, as you might expect - but it wasn’t pompous. I found his book “The Innocence Abroad” - his bestselling book in his lifetime and his first travel book.
Then, Twain was an atheist, and got a commission to cover 120 Protestant Evangelicals, who were traveling to a Muslim country with little regard for Christians. It was matter from heaven for his book. I had a word with the publisher and asked why not, for the next one, we follow Mark Twain in the Holy Land. That became my last book, Innocence and War: Mark Twain’s Holy Land Tour Re-Toured.
I also love India. So I cheekily said, Did you know Mark Twain visited India? My publisher said, “Did he?” After writing, I started this one. I want to do three Mark Twain books - and start next winter in New Orleans and go up the Mississippi.
Twain had a job on a steam boat as a pilot on side-wheel paddle steamers. He was in his early twenties and grew up in the Mississippi, and said he’d be happy to do this for his whole life: going up and down the Mississippi, when it was the golden age of paddle steamers and they were floating palaces. It’ll be a Heart of Darkness in a way but a Heart of Lightness.
Who else would be ideal to follow?
The one I’d really like to do is the British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermore. But I’m coming around to the idea that there’s quite a good book to be had about American artists, actors and writers living in the Caribbean: obviously there’s Hemingway, and an English author Ian Flemming, who wrote James Bond, Errol Flynn, and Humphrey Bogart. Rather than write about one person, I would make the place the star, and write about what happened to all of them.